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Everything You Need To Know About NYC's Dueling Charter Commissions

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If you’re tired of community board members with no term limits, or a broken land use process that actively accelerates displacement, or an NYPD oversight board that is appointed and not elected, you may be interested in revising New York City’s charter. Perhaps through some kind of charter review commission? You’re in luck!

Did you know that New York City is currently home to two separate charter review commissions?

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

What is the city charter?

First enacted in 1898, the charter is the legislative document that establishes New York City, comprised of its five boroughs (which also make up its five constituent counties) as a single municipal entity according to New York State law.

The charter enumerates the powers of the city’s elected officials, and sets the rules for our elections and how we vote, how we can spend our tax revenue, and what elected positions should represent us. It sets how many city council members there are, whether we should have a mayor or not, and whether borough presidents should have any actual power. Much of it is baked into our administrative code, which spells out the laws of New York City.

While the charter can be amended by the city council, changing anything in it that relates to the way we vote, or creates a new citywide office, or radically changes the power of an existing office, must go to a popular vote by the general public.

What happened the last time NYC changed the charter?

The city you live in today, from its powerful mayor to its activist city council, is largely because of the decisions made in 1989, the last time the charter was substantially altered. That year, New York City’s government was overhauled following a Supreme Court ruling that found its Board of Estimate—comprised of the Mayor, Comptroller, City Council president, and the Borough Presidents—was unconstitutional, as it violated the “one person, one vote,” doctrine. New York had to completely rewrite its charter (goodbye City Council President, hello Public Advocate), which affected everything from how the city holds its elections to its process for deciding how to use its land.

Since then, there have been a couple of revisions, mostly regarding term limits. In 1993, a petition drive led to a ballot measure that set city council term limits at two terms (which was famously briefly overturned by the city council in 2009, to let Mayor Michael Bloomberg run for a third term). Both mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg appointed commissions to look at changes to the charter, but neither led to any significant changes in how the city operates. The last major commission to look at the charter was appointed in 2010.

Wait why do we have two different charter revision committees?

According to state law, both the mayor and the city council are allowed to appoint a committee to review the city charter, release a report on possible changes to the charter, and then put specific proposals on the ballot for a popular vote. In January of this year, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he was going to appoint a commission to review the city charter limited at looking for ways to boost civic participation.

At the same time, members of the City Council, along with Public Advocate Tish James (who is now the frontrunner to become the next Attorney General of New York) were working on a bill to create a commission to review the entire city charter for possible changes.

According to law, the mayor’s commission gets precedence — and any ballot proposals his commission generated would be put on the ballot in November 2018 (during the midterm and statewide elections). The City Council’s charter committee, the first a city council had ever legislated into being, would be stuck on the November 2019 ballot, when no citywide or federal races would be at stake, greatly driving down possible participation.

So we’re going to vote on ballot measures that could change the city charter in a little more than three weeks?

Yep! Last month, the committee appointed by Mayor de Blasio announced the results of a series of citywide community hearings and internet-generated proposals that will be appearing on the ballot. The three measures aim to increase civic participation and lower the barriers of entry for running for elected office:

1) Lower the maximum contribution candidates can accept from contributors if they’re using the city’s public financing program by more than 60% and increase the amount of matching funds available to them through public campaign financing.

2) Establish a commission to look into expanding language access at poll sites, expanding participatory budgeting citywide (which allows residents to vote on how their City Council member uses their discretionary funds), and looking into ways to boost civic participation.

3) Place ten-year term-limits on community board members and demystify the appointment process to increase diversity. Also, provide more resources to community boards.

Each of these reflect the de Blasio administration’s effort to increase civic participation without radically altering the way the city’s elections work. Many advocates had rallied around the implementation of ranked-choice voting during committee hearings, which would save the city money on costly runoff elections that consistently draw miniscule turnout.

Ranked-choice voting allows voters to rank their choices for an elected office, with the winner being a candidate that better reflects the support of a majority of voters, rather than just the one who got the most votes. Staff members on the mayor’s committee told Gothamist that while they found ranked choice voting to be a laudable idea, they had questions about its legality and possible implementation

The changes to community boards also represent a longstanding complaint that many New Yorkers (as well as the de Blasio administration) share — that community board members are increasingly older and out-of-touch with the majority of residents in rapidly changing neighborhoods, and have stymied infrastructure projects like bike lanes and other rapid transit improvements (all in the name of parking, of course).

What about the City Council’s charter commission?

While the focus of the mayoral charter review commission is limited to simply how to boost civic engagement, the purview of the City Council’s charter review commission will be considerably larger — basically anything really. During a series of hearings that began last month, New Yorkers have been presenting the commission with ideas that run from outlawing “kill shelters” for New York City’s animals, to revamping the city’s land use process.

On a Tuesday night last month at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, the fifteen commissioners (which were nominated by the Mayor, the City Council Speaker, the city’s Borough Presidents, the Comptroller, and the Public Advocate) listened to a variety of proposals, which, for the most part centered on themes of changing the city’s election system; creating a land use process that measures the impacts of displacement on a community and empowers communities to not only participate in, but also propose development; and establishing an elected citizens review board that would look into instances of police misconduct and mete out discipline to officers.

Each of these ideas were presented to the mayoral commission as well during a frenzy of last-minute community meetings. The commission chose not to act on them, even though commissions are allowed to review every aspect of the city charter, no matter what the person who appointed them instructed.

As the hearing dragged on into a fourth hour (and a committee member briefly left the stage after a not-unnoticed bout of drowsiness), speakers repeatedly expressed interest in changing the city’s land use laws, campaign laws, and police accountability mechanisms.

Other ideas the commission could possibly look into include changing the time construction in the city can begin, whether to allow non-citizens to vote in municipal elections, creating a new public housing program, or abolishing the Board of Elections. The commission can think big. It could also zero in on some of the more hidden aspects of city government, like how the city’s budget gets meted out.

“We could have greater transparency and accountability when it comes to our budgeting process and abide by generally accepted accounting principles,” said Doug Muzzio, a Baruch College professor who has both studied and testified in front of recent charter revision commissions. “I would have a much more transparent and rigorously defined budget system. I would also try to create a transit system that actually works, but that’s really up to the state.”

While appearing on the FAQNYC podcast last month, Comptroller Scott Stringer also zeroed in on the city’s opaque budgeting process, which consistently shortchanges women and minority-owned businesses.

“These charter revision commissions usually end badly. If you look at the mayor’s charter revision commission for example, it was a colossal…” the comptroller said, stopping just short of bashing the limited scope of the mayor’s charter review commission. “Now we get to do another one. Let’s put out the ideas we need to rethink development, how we empower communities, how we improve the disgraceful way we deal as a city with women and minority-owned businesses. We have $23 billion spend in the city and only 4.9% of that money goes to women and minority-owned businesses. It’s a disgrace. We need a chief diversity officer reporting directly to the mayor to change the culture and practice of these agencies.”

One issue that has yet have found much voice during hearings: the role of the public advocate, whose purview and powers have been greatly diminished since its creation.

“This is entirely the place where you should be having the conversation about what the role of the public advocate could be, should be, what the possibilities are — one way to do that would be to have independent budgeting, and to have independent budgeting for the borough president’s offices. You could rethink what the borough president’s office looks like,” said Rachel Bloom, the policy director for Citizens Union which advocates for greater government accountability and has been closely following and participating in the charter revision process.

“You can be thinking very big. You could double the size of the city council, or have the speaker of the city council be an elected position. Whether or not you can get enough commissioners to support it, and then the voters, is another question.”

What’s next?

For the mayoral commission, an awareness campaign to make sure people not only know that they’ll be voting on ballot measures in November’s election, but that they stand to remake participatory democracy at the local level. “They’re going to need to make sure people know to flip the ballot over,” Bloom noted. (The proposals will be on the back side of the ballot).

“I am concerned that people will not vote on these ballot initiatives,” said Cesar Perales, the chair of the mayoral commission. ”I’m confident that if they understand them, they will want to, but what we’re doing is going to try to engage, with our limited budget, getting ads out, letting people know, working with community groups. We’re going to make an effort to get the word out to as many people as possible.”

With under a month to go before election day, the city has yet to release any advertisements or promotions about the November ballot measures (though there is a Twitter account, with 513 followers).

For the city council’s commission, another set of public hearings following an initial round in all five boroughs this past September. Then, an effort to legitimize whatever ends up on the ballot next November by trying to ensure a high turnout during a year where all indicators point towards an absolutely abysmal turnout.

Between low-turnout and non-existent promotion, it makes you really wonder why all these charter review commissions end up going, in the words of the comptroller, so “badly”?

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